Harare – When scientists announced breakthroughs in creating COVID-19 vaccines starting last year, there were fears that wealthy countries would corner the market to the detriment of developing nations.
With foresight, the World Health Organisation structured a vaccine purchase vehicle which would be funded by countries and non-profits.
This saw the birth of Covax, a collaborative effort between Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organisation itself.
When it was set up, Covax was meant to provide vaccines to 20 percent of the populations of poor countries.
In its invitation for expressions of interests, Covax said it existed to ensure that countries without direct access to suppliers were not left out of the vaccine race.
“For governments that do not have bilateral agreements, it offers a reliable supply of successful vaccines,” Covax said if itself.
Many developing countries banked on the promises touted by Covax, which was expected to procure a significant amount of vaccines.
Dr Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, in April this year told a World Health Organisation media briefing that, “Our goal is still to try to get to 2.3 billion doses by the end of 2021 assuming that there are not any major supply disruptions with any of the manufacturers.”
However, not even a platform created in good faith could stop the rich from doing what they have mastered – fostering inequalities.
In late July, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi said, “The Covax facility, which poor African countries were made to believe would help them once they contribute money to it, was merely meant to deceive us. This was just a scam. Only a few vaccines were given to us. As you are aware, lately we had a shortage of AstraZeneca. This is a hoax we are talking about.”
Canada, which in the initial stages had appeared like one of the strongest supporters of the initiative, became the face of the problem when it hoarded more vaccines than it needed, including some acquired from the Covax platform, which could have gone to less endowed countries.
Despite being the biggest funders of Covax with a US$442 contribution, Canada drew 1.9 million doses of AstraZeneca from the facility.
This is despite the fact that they had already secured vaccines privately and their stocks were sufficient for three-times its population.
Canada`s vaccine accumulation, has been seen as an affront to the plight of countries like Botswana who placed their faith and resources in Covax, only to be let down.
At the time of writing, around 200,000 Batswana had been fully vaccinated. About 15,000 who were given a first AstraZeneca jab had to be vaccinated with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines after the initial inoculant provided under the Covax facility had run out and could not be replenished.
“The shortfall in the AstraZeneca vaccine is about 15,000 doses, resulting in people of the same number likely to get their second doses beyond the initially anticipated 12 weeks,” the country`s Ministry of Health and Wellness said.
At a time when countries South Africa and Zimbabwe are importing millions of vaccines every month, Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi in July told his country that he was expecting to receive 50,000 Moderna doses and at least 500,000 doses of those from Johnson & Johnson by December 2021.
The disappointments endured by countries like Botswana have raised questions around why the platform exists in the first place.
Zimbabwean telecommunications mogul Mr Strive Masiyiwa, who was tasked by the African Union to head the bloc’s vaccine acquisition drive, has notably condemned the inequalities in vaccine access.
When Mr Masiyiwa met Covax officials and vaccine manufacturers in December 2020, in his capacity as the AU Special Envoy on COVID-19 Response, he was given assurances that the promised vaccines would be availed to the continent.
Nearly half a year down the line, it has all turned out to be bottled smoke.
In a July virtual meeting in which he appeared with Africa Centre for Disease Control Director Dr John Nkengasong, Mr Masiyiwa charged: “You cannot tell us, on one hand, that you are going to give us the vaccines, while on the other hand you have not lifted restrictions on export of raw materials needed for the manufacture of vaccines. The United States has restrictions on exports of over 60 components required in the production of vaccines.
“If there were to be an inquiry into this, how it all happened, surely we would find Covax culpable because we were misled.”
According to Mr Masiyiwa, Covax was a decoy to silence African nations while the rich took control of vaccines.
“We were led down the garden path. When we came to December 2020, we were made to believe that the whole world was coming together to purchase vaccines for Africa. But what we didn’t know was that we had been carolled into a little corner, while others ran off to secure vaccines. That’s what Covax was supposed to have done for us,” said Mr Masiyiwa.
Africa has lost more than one million people since the pandemic started. Some of those deaths could have been avoided had Covax worked as promised.